Mechanical Turk for research

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A friend told me about an interesting use for Mechanical Turk.  He says he uses it to get research tasks accomplished that he’d otherwise have to pay hourly employees to take on.  For instance, coding documents for quality can be created as a Mechanical Turk job, and then the documents can be uploaded, and the users started off.  He says that unless you can get your hourly workers for $1/hour, MT is usually cheaper.

John 

Open Source software for pay

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I saw an article on Read/WriteWeb today about cofundus.org, a web site where people can chip in $ to get open source software they’d like developed.  The idea is that a bunch of people chip in money, and then together spec out a pieces of software.  Then programmers offer proposals for developing the software.  The funders vote on a programmer to take on the job.  The programmer the gets paid if the funders agree he’s developed the right software, which must be open source licensed.

So far the $ are pretty small, but it would be interesting to see this idea scale up …

John 

Google adjusts page rankings

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One of the interesting arms races is between google and all the services that seek to increase page rank.  (I found particularly fascinating on this page the comment from a seo ("search engine optimizer") that "Google created this market and now they try to destroy it".)  Basically, lots of people are offering to adjust pagerank scores for web sites for money.  They work in different ways, but one of the easiest is to have farms of link pages, and work hard to get other people to link to your link farm.  Then, anyone who pays to get on one of your link pages gets a nice boost in pagerank. 

It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the long term.  Has anyone seen research that describes the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two positions in this arms race?

 John

 

Economics of online communities

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Twice in the past week I’ve come across descriptions of how online communities are impacting the business world, or, is it how the business world is leveraging online communities.

First there was this interview on the BBC Worldservice of one of the authors of "Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything", in which, among other ideas, I first heard "prosumer" defined. Prosumer was coined to refer to how some businesses now conceive of the masses as both producers and consumers. That is, expanding their conception of human resources to include the world of online collaborators.

Next was this description in the New York Times Arts section of a BP-EA collaboration. Yes, that’s energy giant British Petroleum teaming up with video game leader Electronic Arts on introducing some 21st century engergy production realities into SimCity. Sims players will have to consider financial, environmental and public opinion costs of their cities’ energy production strategies. EA gets some expert consultation on the realities of the energy sector and BP gets their real-world logo on virtual wind and solar generation facilities, but what do the rest of us get? An experiment in the affect of online behavior changing real world public opinion and economic behaviors.

Stickiness versus Priciness?

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There’s an interesting blog entry in the datamining blog about the extent to which free sites are motivated to offer good customer service.  The heart of the argument is that if you’re a freeloader on a site on which the bills are being paid by a small percentage of subscribers, you’re likely to see your service suffer.

The deeper argument, though, is that  sites that are sticky are likely to be able to get away with treating their freeloading customers worse over time than sites that are not sticky.  For instance, if part of the reason that you like to shop at Amazon is the recommendations they give you, you can’t switch to a different store easily, because they won’t be able to provide recommendations that are as good.  There are two reasons for this: first of all, they won’t have a personal profile for you, and second, they won’t have as much data about other customers’ behavior.  Because of this stickiness, Amazon should eventually be able to collect higher rents than other online stores.

One interesting solution to both of these problems would be portable profiles.  Consumers could demand that the businesses they buy from accept a profile in a standard format, and export useful information to that standard format.  (Check out the P3P proposal for an example of what such a profile might look like.) Then, customers could easily take their data with them to whatever business they wish to shop at.  For instance, at MovieLens we often get Netflix customers who ask us to import their Netflix profile, so they can use our recommendation engine on their Netflix data.  (We currently don’t support this, because we’re pretty sure doing so would be against Netflix’ terms of use.  We’d love for them to give us permission, though!)

There’s also an aside about the risk of news aggregators being in charge of what we see. The idea is that a news aggregator might refuse to broadly disseminate news that would oppose its interests.  This possibility returns us to an interesting recommender systems problem: how can the user of a recommendation system know that the system is making decisions that are in his or her best interests?  Is there a zero knowledge proof that might help?

John